Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sunday in the Park with George

Studio 54, where the Roundabout Theater Company is now presenting the Stephen Sondheim musical, has quite a history. It was an opera house, a live dinner theater, a radio and TV stage, a wildly fashionable discotheque, before Roundabout bought it in 2003 for a permanent home for musicals. I loved the dark green and gold detailing on the doors and lobby, the Venus and Cupid moldings, and the faded chandeliers.

The theater's faded elegance was in sharp and productive contrast with this high-tech revival of Sunday in the Park with George. Seurat's painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was not only projected onto the white walls and doors on stage, it came alive in animation, blurring the line between life and art, the blurring a theme of the musical. The director Sam Buntrock worked as an animation director on numerous commercial and corporate projects, besides creating animation for BBC and HBO. The great moment in the animation came for me right at the end. After our eyes had been awashed with Seurat's colors, the return to the white walls in the finale came as a startling shock. White, as the musical's Seurat emphasizes, represents all kinds of possibilities.

The first act of the musical felt distended. Its leisurely telling of the stories of different people in the painting lacked direction and dimension. The main conflict, the love between Seurat and his mistress Dot, gained urgency only towards the end of the act, when Dot left Seurat for keeping a part of himself from her, and for his art. Jenna Russell was a convincing Dot. Daniel Evans looked the part of painter, but was otherwise less persuasive. Mary Beth Peil was a formidable stage presence as Seurat's mum.

The second act was updated to 1984 at an American art museum, where Seurat's descendant, another George, displayed his light installation work, Chromolume #7. The satire against the art world was spot-on, but felt laborious. The human need to connect with others was shown to have degenerated into networking for self-promotion. Only when the latter-day George returned to the island of La Grande Jatte, and met the ghost of Dot did he realize afresh the meaning and aim of his art.

The orchestration felt thin. An interesting dot motif did not develop into a governing structure. None of the musical numbers was particularly memorable, although Dot's song "Everybody Loves Louis," in which she compared the popular baker with the isolated painter, was fun, and the duet "We Do Not Belong Together" was moving while it was sung by the lovers.

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